Child poverty gets worse

Posted on November 29, 2013 in Child & Family Debates – Opinion/Editorial
November 28, 2013.

It is disheartening to learn that more than 20 years after parliamentarians boldly — or perhaps cavalierly — resolved to end child poverty in Canada, the problem has worsened, with more children living in poverty today.

A new report by anti-poverty group Campaign 2000 says more children and their families lived in poverty in 2011 than they did in 1989, when the House of Commons passed a unanimous resolution to eliminate child poverty in a decade. According to the report, one in seven children — or 957,000 — live in poverty, while four in 10 Aboriginal children share the same fate. In Ontario, more than 370,000 children lived in poverty in 2011. Among OECD countries — the international club of the world’s most advanced economies — Canada’s child poverty rate puts it in 24th place out of 35. We are failing our children, and we must act to end the scourge of child poverty.

Putting aside the ridiculous notion that MPs can eliminate child poverty by merely passing resolutions, one has to acknowledge their good intentions, and recognition that this is a problem that must be addressed. And it is safe to say that all Canadians, regardless of political persuasion, hate to see one child go hungry. All of us want to eliminate child poverty, but how? The causes are so complex and varied, there is no one simple solution.

Lack of education, lack of work, low-paid work, inadequate benefits to the poor and disability all contribute to child poverty. Fundamentally, when parents are poor, their children are poor. Drastic solutions are obviously needed, and the report calls for sweeping changes, including a federal plan on child poverty and reform of the child benefit system. The suggested changes, the report says, would increase child benefits to $5,400, from $3,654 today, and make a difference in the lives of many people. But on an issue as emotive as this, there are bound to be disagreements on what’s the best solution.

David Macdonald, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says it will cost $10 billion to completely eliminate child poverty in Canada, with combination of good public policy and some private sector involvement. He points to the success Canada has achieved in dramatically reducing poverty among seniors, which stood at 36 per cent in the 1970s, but now hovers around 12 per cent. This was achieved through carefully targeted policies such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and the Canada Pension Plan years earlier. The same could be done to reduce child poverty with specific policies that target people who actually need help.

Gregory Thomas, the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, doesn’t disagree that child poverty must be eradicated, but he questions the assertion that one-in-seven children live in poverty, calling the number exaggerated. He says there’s something fundamentally wrong when many Canadians claim to be unemployed even as 340,000 temporary foreign workers are brought into the country because of labour shortages. He says there are much deeper problems, and simply throwing more money at child poverty is not the answer.

However, Macdonald and Thomas both agree that the child benefit system needs an overhaul, to redirect money that mainly benefits the middle class, to the neediest instead. For instance, why give a child fitness tax credit to well-to-do families who really don’t really need the money? And what is the sense in giving families who earn say, $200,000, a $100-a-month cheque because they have children under six years old, when they can clearly do without the money?

We have seen the anger against the so-called one-per-cent, against whom the Occupy movement raged not too long ago. While inequality does have consequences, it is simplistic and wrong to suggest that a child is poor because someone else has a million dollars in the bank. The simple fact is, we don’t, as a society, pay as much attention to the plight of the poor as we should. Our politicians pass resolutions and do little else because there are no votes in fighting for the poor. Perhaps instead of raging against the top one per cent, we should all be agitating for the bottom 10 per cent.

It doesn’t matter whether the number of children living in poverty is one in seven, or one in 20. Whatever the number, it is a stain that we must get rid of. Now may be the time for our parliamentarians to put their money where their mouth is. They should engineer a national debate that would lead to a comprehensive national strategy to end this scourge — a strategy that would focus on adequate supports at the bottom of the income scale, not scattershot, inefficient and costly goodies to buy middle-class votes.

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